Victoria trained at the Universities of London and Oxford and subsequently spent six years as a post-doctoral research biologist and research fellow. Her scientific work has taken her to 19 countries and across 4 continents. Today, she writes for various magazines and works as a public speaker and visiting university lecturer.
The photo below is (c) Victoria Neblik, 2014, all rights reserved.
1. When you were a student and researcher, what first drew you to studying the sciences?
I have been interested in wildlife and living things for as long as I can remember. As a child I used to be wildly enthusiastic about planting seeds and growing things; I also remember being very interested in my mother's medical textbooks (she worked as a hospital nurse). In many subjects, books for adults seem to become much more dense--devoid of pictures--and generally much less appealing than those for children. In science, though, books are often full of pictures and diagrams and that captured my attention early on.
In Britain, we tend to specialise much earlier in our education than in the US, so by the time I was at University I had long since made the decision to study science. As a student, I did a degree in microbiology because liked the idea of unraveling how diseases and germs function. Later on, I applied for various doctoral studentships in the microbiology, but many of them seemed uninspiring. Spending three years studying one tiny part of one virus seemed insignificant, somehow. So at that point I began to move towards zoology: studying many animals at a time, rather than one disease.
2. As a photographer and author, what do you see as the connections between your visual art and your written work?
I take pictures of plants and wildlife and I write about both. Really, I think these are just two different ways to look at the same subject. Actually, a lot of the writing I do is for magazines, so I am working in a very visual medium much of the time.
Sometimes you get a great story and only a fairly mediocre image to go with it, and at other times you can get a fantastic studio shot with not a lot of effort and no tale to go with it; for me, the real magic comes when you get both--a visually exciting image and a great story behind it.
3. What inspired you to branch out into public speaking?
Public speaking is part of life as an academic, whether it is giving lectures to students or to school children who wish to study science or presenting a discovery at a scientific conference. So, I guess public speaking has long been part of my life. It is just that I talk to people from all walks of life, now, rather than only to academics. Writing and public speaking are both ways to present a view of the world or tell a story, though, so they have something in common. It's just that you get more immediate feedback in a public talk and interaction with the audience.
4. Would you tell us a bit about your experiences in the Middle East and topics for talks you've developed from your experiences?
Certainly! I have been very lucky in that I have been to see some amazing places and some great wildlife. The talks are really just an excuse for me to share some of that experience and the pictures I took. I remember being first inspired to visit the Middle East by a talk someone gave to my class when I was at school--so, talking in schools now is a bit like coming full circle.
I have spent quite a bit of time in Jerusalem and I used the city as a base for shorter trips to various wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. I felt that Jerusalem has a really powerful, ancient and authentic atmosphere to it: as if it is as old as time itself. It was quite a moving experience.
My first trip to the region was to see Palestine Sunbirds, which are a little like hummingbirds. Once I arrived, though, one thing led to another and I moved on to see hoopoes and hyraxes, Syrian dragonflies and so on... Highlights of my last trip included seeing a giant black fire racer snake in the Golan Heights and a trip to the Alexander River to see the population of Nile Turtles they have there. The turtles, frankly, are fairly hideous looking things--enormous creatures with peculiar snouts and a face only a mother could love--but they have an interesting biology and a sort of primitive "gill"-type structure inside their throats. So I guess they're interesting, rather than endearing--but I thrive on that, you know? The weird and the wonderful! The Middle East has plenty of both, which is something I have tried very hard to capture in my talks.
5. For aspiring writers who would like to focus on topics related to nature and travel, what are some tips you would offer based on what you've learned in your own work?
I think different things work for different people, but for me, keeping a diary or a notebook is important. Little details can add great appeal to almost any article and it is precisely these details that tend to be forgotten. Having a solid background in biology (in my case) or in geography or history, I think can also be a huge benefit for travel writing: that way you are writing from a position of strength--starting with what you know about a place and embellishing with local details and with your own experiences.